British Grand Prix (Qualifying)

British Grand Prix Qualifying Day, Silverstone (15th July 2017)

Over forty thousand quid – that’s what this day out nearly cost me. Now, I sure we all know a day out at Silverstone for the Grand Prix, even just for qualifying, isn’t cheap, but that’s a little excessive.

I had tried to just buy one General Admission ticket, but when I went to the checkout basket page of the Silverstone site, it had a bit of a brainfart, got confused and hung for a few minutes, before returning saying I’d ordered 501 tickets for a total cost of £40087. The extra £7 was a handling fee, which you think they could have waived considering the size of my bill.

Fortunately I’d not entered any credit card details, and the site thankfully didn’t have a “buy with one click” button, so all it did was make the real price of £80 almost seem a bargain.

So what does £80 get you? Well, it doesn’t get you anywhere under cover, which it quite annoying on a day when it chose to rain twice, and at the exact times the Formula 1 cars were on the track, both times. It does, however, grant you access to trackside viewing areas around most of the track, some of which are grass banks, some actual concreted terrace.

The keen, or maybe just those who’ve been here before, get here early and stake their claim to their favourite spot, plonking down directors’ chairs, and taking root. Given that you could be in that spot for a good 10 hours or so, I’d want something a little more comfy. One couple even bought an inflatable sofa.

My plan, however, was to wander round the whole track, watching different parts of the day from different parts of the track, to get a feel for the whole place. It’s fair to say a lap of the circuit – the outside of the circuit – is not a short one. I started by Luffield, the stadium part of the track just before the start of the old finish straight, and by the time I’d returned to watch the morning free practice session, two and a half hours had elapsed. OK, I did stop and various points now and then, but I think if I hadn’t it would have still been at least a 90 minute walk.

The actual stands are nothing special, just looking like the kind of scaffolding temporary stands seen at many sporting events. They did offer a massive advantage over much of the general admission viewing areas though, in that they look over the fences, rather than make you look through them. A roving grandstand upgrade was available, but at £50, it was at least £20 higher than I might have considered. I could live with the odd fence at that price.

Part of the reason for the expense is that Silverstone has to pay the FIA, Formula One’s governing body £16 million a year to host the race, an amount that ratchets up every year. Even with 350,000 people attending over the three days, that’s still adding on £45 per ticket. Come 2026, when the fee is due to rise to £25 million, that’s be £71 a ticket just to cover the cost of hosting the event. As a result, the future of the race is in doubt, with Silverstone saying 2019 will now be the last race. With F1 under new ownership, it may be just a negotiating ploy, but with six F1 teams based in England, and McLaren the only one of those more than an hour’s drive away from Silverstone, it wouldn’t just be the English fans who’d be sad to see this traditional circuit dropped from the calendar.

True, the Italians lost the almost as historic Imola circuit in 2007, but they still have Monza. I can’t claim to be a massive F1 fan, or have my finger of the pulse of F1 fans in this country, but if F1 replace the British Grand Prix with one in yet other oil-rich more-money-than-sense country in 2020, I find it hard to believe interest wouldn’t fall here.

There is more to the Saturday at Silverstone than just the F1 qualifying. There’s the hour long F1 practice session. Before that is the Porsche Supercup qualifying – and seeing how fast they fly down Hangar Straight, I only hope nobody tries those speeds on the Autobahn in their home country. There’s the Formula 2 drivers’ parade and also a 29 lap F2 race after the main qualifying, along with a GP3 race after that, plus other parade laps and bands performing on the main stage in the evening. You might think people would just clear off home, but many thousands camp for the weekend, and this part of Northamptonshire isn’t overflowing with entertainment options.

Silverstone Village itself (where I ended up parking) appears to have one pub and one small shop, so not a wild night out, so I can easily imagine thousands stay for the whole day. Although if they do, though they might bring their own food. Obviously, that isn’t cheap either. The Thai Food stall did an admittedly nice chicken & cashew nut & rice dish, but if it is really all the recipe of a man from Sukhamvit in Bangkok, as the blurb on the stall’s sign stated, he’d surely have regarded the £9.50 price (not marked anywhere, obviously) as a rip-off that’d make a Bangkok taxi-driver blush (sorry, meter-broken. Me do special price for you sir, to airport just 1200 Baht).

For the less committed, which includes me, it was really about the two hours or so of F1. The Porsches were a novelty, and I enjoyed the sound of the F2 cars, as they sound like how F1 cars used to sound, but that wasn’t what I’d got up at 5 am to get here to see.

I watched the free practice at Luffield. It offered a decent view – you could just see over the fence from the back. That’s vital with my camera and its keen autofocus, but even allowing for that, I still had a few shots that contained perfectly focussed chain-link fence, with an almost artfully blurred F1 car in the background.

For the actual qualifying, I moved round to Copse corner, in a different location for each of the three sessions. The first was punctuated by a rain shower. This made Copse not a bad place to be, as the cars were clearly struggling with grip as they took the corner at speed. Carlos Sainz spun his Torro Rosso in a full 360, superbly timed to be at the exact moment I was wiping raindrops from my camera, so all I got was his recovery.

Even without fences getting in the way, on a dull and slightly rainy day, getting crisp shots of very fast moving cars is not easy. The number I managed to take of the Sauber drivers probably reflects the lack of speed of the struggling back-marker team.

I did manage to get a few of the unsurprisingly popular Lewis Hamilton, cheered on by the crowd every time he went past. The other Brit racing, Jolyon Palmer, didn’t get quite the same patriotic roar when his yellow and black Renault came into view. Unlike Lewis, Jolyon also doesn’t have his own personally dedicated merchandising stalls around the track, so no Jolyon Palmer baseball caps for £50, or t-shirts for just £90.

Lewis Hamilton did please the home crowd in the more important way though, getting pole position at the British Grand Prix, and equalling the record of five British Grand Prix poles, although the cheer that greeted it wasn’t quite the roar I was expecting. The fans must save that us for the race itself.

With the qualifying over, and having been on my feet for six hours, the temptation was to just leave. That seemed a bit of a waste though, so I made my way back to Luffield, a different part, and watched the F2 race. In truth it was almost as much about enjoying the sound of the cars as anything else, and throughout the one hour race, I edged my way round the track to the exit gate. There may have been a GP3 race an hour later, but my feet were complaining like a bored child, and wanted to go home. Having been up since 5 probably didn’t help either – I’m really not a morning person – so I trudged the mile back to Silverstone Village, having enjoyed the day, but slightly puzzled how I seemed to have got mild sunburn despite it being a day of blanket cloud and rain. All part of the Grand Prix experience, I suppose.

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